Scripture as Usable History, Part II

In my last post I described the pushback from some American evangelicals against God-and-country Bibles like the Patriot’s Bible or the Bicentennial Bible. Another woefully understudied, but potentially significant, source of dissent is global evangelicalism. To my knowledge Mark Noll is one of the few to analyze foreign perspectives on America’s treatment of Scripture. In one of the most striking chapters of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, entitled “Opinions of Protestants Abroad,” Noll surveys how nineteenth-century European Christians regarded the American debate over slavery. None linked the defense of American slavery with the defense of scriptural authority. Many Europeans, according to Tracy McKenzie’s overview, observed what was “invisible to American believers, in particular the degree to which material interests, republican assumptions, and racial attitudes were shaping the Christians, North and South.” Many were withering in their assessments of American methodologies in debates over the Civil War. Noll agrees, noting the utter lack of “theological profundity.” American Christians were hyper-individualistic, lacked any central authority, and paid insufficient attention to tradition.

Theological CrisisIs there a twenty-first-century equivalent of this critique? Views from abroad are surely diverse themselves, but it is difficult to imagine a strong global constituency for The Patriot’s Bible. This is perhaps Perry’s perceptive point when he writes, “It may be that evangelicals’ goal of Americanizing the Bible is at cross-purposes with their goal of biblicizing America, because they make the Bible dependent on a particular reading of American history.” Of the individuals quoted in The Patriot’s Bible, the overwhelming majority are white, male, dead, and American. The appeal of this message and approach surely has real limits in the context of a rising Global South, a maturing theological educational system abroad, and burgeoning immigration to the U.S. from the Majority World.

Barton surely derives identity, strength, and internal cohesion from his sense of embattlement. But the weight of demography leans heavily against the kind of right-wing Christian nationalism represented by these patriotic bibles. It could be that The Patriot’s Bible—with its misplaced nostalgia and abuse of history—is a last gasp from marginal fundamentalists slipping into obscurity. After all, conservatives are losing the battle over same-sex marriage. Some are abandoning the faith entirely. Others, supplementing common-sense readings of Scripture with history and tradition, are “crossing the Tiber” (see Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible) or taking the Canterbury Trail (see Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail).

In the end, the rowdy assemblage of immigrant, Anabaptist, and Christian nationalist perspectives may simply be the logical end of an individualistic Protestantism. American evangelicals, as Tocqueville noted, were the authors of a democratic, non-hierarchical style that was simultaneously volatile and virile. Very few purveyors of usable history in this debate over Scripture and the nation have practiced the humility of Lincoln, who turned out to be one of the very few profound theological voices during the Civil War. Acknowledging that “the Almighty has his own purposes” is not the kind of sensibility that would depict Jesus cuffed with an American flag (as some New Left evangelicals have done)—or interpolate quotes from Dick Cheney into the biblical text (as some New Right evangelicals have done).

*** For a broader discussion on the topic of “The Bible in America, America in the Bible,” see the July-August 2014 edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum hosted by the University of Chicago Divinity School. ***


Rapture Night

Opening act by William Tapley, followed by the feature presentation “A Thief in the Night” and perhaps a round or two of “Left Behind: The Board Game.” There will be an alternative movie upstairs for kids. Feel free to bring snacks to share, or just come and enjoy. We’ll have plenty of popcorn, hot drinks, and freeze-dried Y2K rations. Saturday, February 21, at 7 p.m. at the Swartz residence (510 Talbott Dr., Wilmore, KY)

Rapture night


Scripture as Usable History

Given the intensity of these Christian nationalist voices, it can be easy to equate them with broader American evangelicalism. But in fact, as Perry shows, there is a real range of evangelical opinion and special-interest Bibles, some that far precede contemporary right-wing versions. The Patriot’s Bible, rooted in an eschatological perspective known as premillennialism, represents a very particular reading of Scripture and American history that emphasizes declension from earlier ideals. But the Woman’s Bible (1895-98) of a century earlier was certainly not a conservative text. Supporting suffrage, it represented a postmillennial view that history is ever progressing toward equality.

I want to extend Perry’s observation by discussing some contemporary evangelical interpretations of the Bible and America that look very different from the kind of Christian nationalism represented by the Patriot’s Bible. Perhaps most vehement in recent years have been neo-Anabaptists, who enjoy growing influence among evangelicals. Each July 4 a battalion of prominent bloggers that include Kurt Willems, Benjamin Corey, Greg Boyd, and writers affiliated with the MennoNerds network issue posts such as “A Liturgy of Confession and Allegiance for July 4th” that push back against American jingoism.

This evangelical Anabaptist phenomenon began back in the 1970s. The numbers were far lower then, but the intensity was not. The Post-American tabloid (now known as Sojourners) featured a signature blend of evangelical piety, leftist politics, and anti-nationalism. The first issue, which came out in the fall of 1971, featured a cover of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and cuffed with an American flag that covered his bruised body. America, the depiction implied, had re-crucified Christ. Inside, “A Joint Treaty of Peace between the People of the United States, South Vietnam and North Vietnam” declared that the American and Vietnamese people were not enemies and called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. The “American captivity of the church,” founder Jim Wallis continued, “has resulted in the disastrous equation of the American way of life with the Christian way of life.”

Piling on have been evangelical historians represented at hundreds of state universities and Christian liberal arts colleges. In the 1970s and 1980s they were led by a scholarly triumvirate made up of Robert Linder (Kansas State), Richard Pierard (Indiana State), and Robert Clouse (Indiana State). In the 1980s Mark Noll and George Marsden conducted a sometimes-combative dispute with Francis Schaeffer over the notion of Christian America. And more recently, Warren Throckmorton of Grove City College and John Fea of Messiah College have taken on David Barton and enlisted dozens of colleagues in opposition to his flood of books, speeches, and videos. Largely due to their activism, publisher Thomas Nelson in 2012 pulled Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies.

To be sure, there are millions of fundamentalists and evangelicals on the ground who still espouse a patriotic narrative, but a formidable evangelical brain trust stands united in support of the kind of nuance and context practiced by the broader historical guild.

*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***


Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya

It’s beach-reading season—and I have a can’t-miss recommendation. Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya, the debut novel of St. Mary’s College (Ind.) history professor Bill Svelmoe, is a hysterical account of the foibles of good-hearted, but sometimes naïve missionaries.

I recommend the book for several reasons. First, it offers texture and empathy. I grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but I could just about imagine what it must be like to live as part of a religious colony in an utterly foreign place like the jungles of Asia. The characters embody sacrifice, loneliness, adventure, emotional frailty, and uncommon strength. Given the novel’s humanity, it is no surprise to learn that Svelmoe himself grew up in a missionary family in the Philippines. If this story is any indication, he seems profoundly ambivalent about his own history. The narrative careens from exasperation to affection. Consider this passage between the book’s protagonist (a young rebel named Philip who is questioning his faith) and a kind-hearted missionary who sympathizes with Philip’s critiques of the missionary base (and who boasts a hidden cache of Bob Dylan and Beatles records):

Joseph stood to go. But Philip had a question. “What about you? You seem to have an interesting perspective on all this? Why are you here?”

Joseph picked up their bottles and put them in a case already half full of empties [to clarify, these bottles contained orange sodas, not beer–the missionary agency would not have allowed that]. “Because the foibles and follies of evangelicalism aren’t the sum total of the gospel. What these folks do is great work. And they’re the only ones doing it. Only evangelicals and fundamentalists, like your Dad for instance, care enough to do this kind of thing. So I support their work, I support them, and, most of the time, I keep my opinions to myself.”

Second, the novel features an historian’s eye for context and significance. Svelmoe, who has also written a scholarly monograph on Wycliffe founder Cameron Townsend, paints a twentieth-century evangelical landscape of missionary outposts, suburban California mega-churches, ambivalence toward modernity, practices of intense individual spirituality, and strict cultural codes. I can imagine this novel offering good fodder for discussion in a college course in American religious history.

But mostly Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya is just a lot of fun. There’s a urinating monkey, a budding romance between Philip and the missionary school’s librarian, and a withering description of the fundamentalist apocalyptic horror film Thief in the Night:

[It] was a train wreck, but fun in that “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” sort of way. Several lightly groomed Christian teenagers lamely attempted to convince a group of equally homely heathen teens that Jesus was about to return and they’d better get right or they’d get left. Philip would have left the entire lot of them. Their hair will get grease on the heavenly sofas, he thought. It was easy to tell the soon-to-be-saved heathens from the soon-to-be-left-behind heathens. The good heathens listened to the speaker’s tedious lecture about the end times with intense looks on their faces, while the bad heathens just wanted sex. The heathen boys leered indiscriminately at girls both righteous and unrighteous, while the Christian boys had clearly been neutered. The most unconscionable scene in Philip’s opinion was when a little girl woke up in a seemingly empty house and, freaked out by all the rapture talk to which she’d been exposed, began to shriek, thinking she’d been left behind. When her parents rushed in they capitalized on their daughter’s terror to lead her in the sinner’s prayer. Now there’s a genuine conversion, Philip thought.

And then this priceless commentary: “The Antichrist did not appear to be well funded, as his forces consisted of about five people driving second-hand vans.”

We can only hope that Svelmoe, who is beginning a sabbatical this summer, is reclining on a chaise lounge on his deck armed with a laptop, a drink that is not orange soda, and a childhood of memories as he dreams up new plotlines of fundamentalist hijinks in the jungles.

*** Cross-posted at Patheos ***

Black religion and Vietnam

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon (listen to it here) he publicly broke ranks with the policies of President Lyndon Johnson and the white liberal establishment (which still largely supported the war) as he condemned American involvement in Vietnam.

King articulated what increasing numbers of Americans were beginning to feel—that Vietnam, civil rights, and economics were deeply interconnected. Just as the policies of Johnson’s Great Society had begun to confront black poverty at home, King observed, the United States began pouring soldiers and resources into Southeast Asia. With the military buildup, commitment to domestic justice and equality faded. For every $53 Washington spent to help a poor person in the United States, Andrew Preston has noted, it spent $500,000 to kill a person in Vietnam.

Moreover, African Americans and other minorities were dying in extraordinarily high proportions in the early years of the war even though they accounted for a small percentage of the population. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society,” King charged, “and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” As a result, Americans faced the “cruel irony” of watching black and white American boys kill and die together in the service of a country “that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” It was a powerful sermon, one that has recently resurfaced in the public consciousness upon the death of its author Vincent Harding.

But King’s sermon did not reflect the opinions of rank-and-file African Americans. In a just-released book entitled American Protestants and the Debate over the Vietnam War, George Bogaski chronicles the fascinating non-response of black evangelicals to King’s speech and the intensifying war in Southeast Asia.

So why did black evangelicals not follow King on this issue? First, like many white evangelicals, considerable numbers of African Americans wanted to focus more on evangelism than politics. Geopolitical peace was certainly desirable, but it had limited spiritual value. “If we win the war in Vietnam, will this be the answer to our problems?” asked a writer in The Star of Zion. “We think not, for there are wars most everywhere, not only in America. The world needs to seek God.” This sounded much like the spiritualized writings of Carl Henry and Billy Graham on Vietnam, and it constrained the possibilities of antiwar activism.

Second, many nurtured a passionate loyalty to President Johnson, a president who had signed the Civil Rights Act (1963) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Black denominations almost universally supported Johnson over Goldwater in 1964. Johnson’s win, explained a writer in The Star of Zion in January 1965, proved that “God is still on the throne.” As president, Johnson approached problems with “energy, candor, and integrity.” After AME bishops visited the White House, they praised him for his reform efforts in the areas of poverty, education, Medicare, housing, and civil rights. Johnson, they wrote, was “one of the greatest champions of human rights of minorities in this century, if not our entire history. “HE DID THE MOST,” declared one editorial.

Johnson was a friend to civil rights, and he was also a Cold War hawk. He pushed hard for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and for troop build-ups in Southeast Asia. African-Americans were loathe to criticize their advocate. King’s advisors warned him about this, telling him that his antiwar speeches were “too advanced for many Negroes and that it did not constitute the widest appeal.” More likely is that many blacks, especially those affiliated with the NAACP, worried that antiwar activism would jeopardize the civil rights struggle. In the end, writes Bogaski, Vietnam led to a “dramatic split between King and the African-American church.” The full ramifications of this split were never realized. Just a year later in 1968, King was shot in Memphis, an awful moment in an awful year that also included the Tet Offensive and the shooting of Robert Kennedy.

It’s a fascinating story told with skill. And there is much more in the Bogaski’s narrative. On a broader level, the book offers a much-needed exploration of theological responses to the Vietnam War that goes beyond the simplistic binary of mainline doves and evangelical hawks. Bogaski ably charts gaps between leadership and laity, revolts of mainline conservatives, debates over methods of dissent, and evangelical opposition to the conflict.


Plowshares last night

Pohl-web(1)


Slow Church: A Report from the Trenches

http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/anxiousbench/files/2014/06/Slow-Church.jpegAs an admirer of the Englewood Review of Books, I have been anticipating the release of Slow Church. Now that it’s in my hands, I’m happy to report that it doesn’t disappoint. I am thoroughly convinced by the book’s critique and vision. I’ll leave the close outlining of the book’s contents—on ethics, ecology, and economy—to others who have already done so. Instead, I want to offer a report on the book’s potential audience from my small corner of the world: a small Wesleyan liberal arts college in central Kentucky. Based on my interaction with students here, I expect that many will be compelled by its vision.

Each year I teach a course on World Civilizations. Together students and I trace the rise of the supremacy of the market (capitalism); of technology and gears of production (industrialization); of the organization of society on the basis of efficiency and calculation, not morality, emotion, custom, or tradition (rationalization); of the absolute sovereignty of nations within their borders (nation-state), and of the strong belief in progress. It’s the story of modernity.

My students find much to like about modern development. In the case of industrialization, they note the abundance of food (even oranges in wintertime!). But they also articulate some of the downsides—Cheese Whiz, Twinkies, pollution, global warming, stunning levels of wealth inequality—and are surprised at the length and magnitude of the list. Modernity has not come through on all it has promised. My students, many of them from Appalachia, know these realities all too well.

At the end of the course, we talk about alternatives to excesses of modernity. We discuss the virtues of gardening, reading from books with actual pages, sitting on front porches in the evening and visiting with neighbors, fasting from social media, and so on. Essentially, this is the vision of Chris Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church.

Then, in a kind of culminating experience, I try to give them a taste of what we’re talking about. Here’s the assignment:

  • Rationale: We live in a hyperactive industrialized world of automobiles, vacuum cleaners, combines, smartphones, water treatment plants, and flashy megachurches. YouTube and Facebook, iPhones and SMS have taken up hours in the day once spent in reflection, reading, and story-telling on the front porch. TV, texting, multi-tasking, and iPhone apps have fostered, and we can barely Sit. Still. At All. Premodern humans experienced life very differently. They worked hard physically. They spent time in meditation. This assignment is predicated on the notion that silence and reflection can be virtues, that we have lost something valuable in this age of overabundant information and entertainment. In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes, “Silence is a time to rest in God. Lean into God, trusting that being with him in silence will loosen your rootedness in the world and plant you by streams of living water. It can form your life even if it doesn’t solve your life.”
  • Instructions: Your assignment is to be silent for 90 minutes. Put away your computer and smartphone. Do not watch television. Leave the presence of other people. Just be still by yourself. You may walk or hike in nature for part of the 90 minutes, but be sure to sit on a bench or lay down on the grass for some of the time.
  • Paper: Write a one- to two-page paper reflecting on your experience and putting it in historical perspective. What does it feel like to be silent, to be without the pings of a smartphone? How is our lifestyle now different than in premodern times?

It’s a modest assignment than gets immodest reactions. One young man balked completely, told me that social media was his total existence, and spent his two pages justifying his refusal to be still and contemplative for 90 minutes. But a good half of my students wax nostalgic for a time they’ve never really known. They exult on how refreshed they feel and pledge to integrate slowness into their daily routine. I have no way of knowing how many are just sucking up or how many actually follow through. But it seems like I’m hitting a nerve.

On the last day of class, we recite some Neil Postman together. “Loving Resistance Fighters” are people who “pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked and why; who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations; who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical power of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as synonymous for truth; who are, at least suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding; who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they ‘reach out and touch someone,’ they expect that person to be in the same room; who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth; who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement” (Technopoly, 183-84).

I’ve noticed more raised jaws, intense eyes, and fervent voices than I expected. I have hope.

*** Cross-posted at Patheos ***


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